Stuff from Way Back #31: When Iraq Was Civilized

(Inasmuch as Iraq is constantly in the news these days it seems appropriate to talk about a time when the region played host to the two most momentous events in human history: the discovery of agriculture and the birth of civilization. Actually, the discovery of farming appears to have happened in a number of places in the Near East, but the first urban civilization was unquestionably born in southern Iraq.)



After 5000 years of urban settlement Iraq only became a country in 1920 in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and it may be questioned a century later if it really is a country.  The new state was essentially formed from the Turkish vilayets or provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra for the convenience of the French and British victors of the Great War and thus incorporated a mixture of communities, the largest being the Kurds and the Sunni and Shiite Muslims.  The instability of this arrangement became perfectly clear once the United States, in a burst of incredible stupidity, eliminated the Sunni dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.



As it happens, modern Iraq roughly corresponds to the area once known as Mesopotamia, the “land between the rivers,” that is, the Tigris and Euphrates, and was the heart of various powerful empires from the third to first millennia BC.  For convenience pre-classical historians have traditionally called the northern half of the area Assyria and the southern Babylonia, with Babylonia divided into Akkad in the north and Sumer in the south.  It was in Sumer that civilization was born, nosing out the Egyptians, Indians and Chinese.



Agriculture was of course the prerequisite for settled society, inasmuch as hunting and gathering cultures must continually move around, and developed agriculture was necessary to support the non-food producing populations of cities.  Proponents of “Paleolithic” diets are calling the agricultural revolution a catastrophe for humanity because humans were not really designed to live off grains and settlements brought problems, such as new diseases, but all the growth and material and intellectual progress of humanity arises from farming and building cities.  This is exactly why it has been called the Neolithic Revolution.  I certainly will take the problems of civilized society over the short, brutish and ignorant life of the Paleolithic hunter.


Humans had discovered that certain grasses could be eaten – they were gatherers after all – and those grains, emmer and einkorn wheat and hulled barley, grew wild on the hilly borders of the Fertile Crescent (Mesopotamia, Syria-Palestine and the Nile valley), such as the flanks of the Zagros mountains, where there was sufficient rainfall.  Along the way some communities realized, probably mostly accidentally (spilled grains later sprouted), that grain seeds placed in the earth would produce more grain.  Initially, however, the supply of these grains was large enough that there was no need to cultivate them; they were just another, though plentiful, gathered food.  Why men actually began primitive farming, serious and tedious labor compared to hunting and gathering, is not clear, but most likely it had to do with growing populations forcing some groups into more marginal areas that were less bountiful.


Neolithic farming settlement - eastern Anatolia

Neolithic farming settlement – eastern Anatolia

wild emmer wheat

wild emmer wheat

The Mesolithic Age, from about 9000 to 7000 BC (in the Near East) was the transition period, during which sown grain becomes a major part of the diet, animal domestication begins and temporary and then permanent settlements appear.  By the beginning of the Neolithic around 7000 BC farming appears to have displaced hunting and gathering, at least in those upland areas on the fringes of the Fertile Crescent where there was regular rainfall.  During the seventh millennium real villages, pottery and baked bricks all appear, while growing population and the lure of richer soil was pushing men towards the next development: irrigation agriculture at lower altitudes.  By the early centuries of the sixth millennium copper was being used, ushering in the Chalcolithic Age.  During this period temples, seals, mural paintings and more elaborate painted ware appear, and the use of bricks becomes much more widespread.  Major agricultural towns are now found on the river plains, employing the ground water for their crops, and in the fourth millennium a cooler and drier climate in the region accelerated the move into the rich river valleys themselves.  By the middle of the fourth millennium the use of bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) has become general enough that the area has moved into the very early Bronze Age.


By the later fourth millennium, during the Uruk period, human society in Mesopotamia has taken the critical step into what is generally understood by the term “civilization.”  The potter’s wheel, the sail, sculpture and statuary had all arrived, but far more important were two other developments: the earliest group habitation that might be called a “city” and writing.  “Civilization” traditionally means an urbanized society, and writing, the other hallmark of civilization, inevitably follows that urbanization, a response to the growing complexities of human activity.


An immediate question of course is exactly what constitutes a city.  Size is probably the least important factor, and the cities of the fourth millennium would indeed strike us as tiny towns.  By the end of the period Uruk (Erech), from which the period gets its name, was perhaps 1200 acres at its height at the beginning of the third millennium, but this is very late and Uruk was likely the biggest city in the world at that time.  A more common size for the late fourth millennium is 100-200 acres.





The most important factor is differentiation of population, that is, not all those living in the city grow food; no matter how large, if all the residents are directly involved in the food supply, it is not a city but an agricultural village.  There is a specialization of labor, and the specialists – craftsmen, merchants, officials, etc. – are supported by the farmers in the countryside.  This external food support also allows the higher population density associated with urban areas.  There will be an economically and politically stratified population, that is, differences in wealth and power, and there will be an institutionalized and formalized governmental structure, with officials (including priests in the case of Sumer) supported by the state through taxation.  Monumental architecture, including city walls, is characteristic, since these projects involve state control of resources, generally through some form of taxation and conscripted labor.


These are the core requirements, but other characteristics inevitably follow.  Typically, there is well developed trade, allowing the import of materials unavailable locally and the export of local resources and manufacture.  The concentrated wealth of the city will attract predators and consequently lead to more organized defense in the form of soldiers, also necessary to enforce the power of the elites and maintain control.  More important, administrative and mercantile needs will require increasingly sophisticated record keeping, and at some point that record keeping will become writing, allowing an exponential increase in human development and thought.  Primitive writing in Sumer appears to have emerged by about 3300 BC, though our examples come centuries later.  Civilization was born, and unfortunately it involved from the start organized violence in the form of armies, large scale chattel slavery and incipient bureaucracy.  But that’s the price you pay.

cuneiform - the first writing

cuneiform – the first writing

Why cities and why in Mesopotamia?  For the same reasons that urban civilization will quickly follow in the Nile and Indus valleys: the rivers.  These are “hydraulic” civilizations, in that the water of the rivers provided the stimulus and reward for further social development.  Growing population and increasing aridity pushed the early agriculturalists down into the river valleys, where their developing agricultural technique allowed them to face the greater challenge of groundwater farming.  Very simply put, constructing the irrigation systems that would insure a regular supply of water to the fields required increased cooperation and more sophisticated direction and social management.  The greater returns provided by more dependable water resources and the richer soils of the riverine areas provided growing food surpluses, which in turn supported a growing population of “specialists,” who did not directly participate in the production of food, leading to an increasingly differentiated and efficient society.  The appearance of institutionalized leadership, that is, government, permitted and enforced greater cooperation and communal use of resources.  That the emerging elites were likely able to manipulate to some degree the all-important water supply (which is in part why they were the emerging elites) could only accelerate the process.



Allowing for specialization of labor, food surpluses produced a more efficient, more materially productive society.  That specialization, however, also permitted the existence of inhabitants who contributed nothing to the material well-being of the group, and one of the most obvious manifestations of this is the evolution of the arts, at least the graphic and plastic arts.  Art thus moves beyond the decorative – designs on pottery, for example – and becomes symbolic and communal, as artist specialists engage in large projects supported by the economic elites, the state and the temple.  Which brings up the priests.  The emergence of the city allows the institutionalization of religion as well, and the society can now afford to maintain what are in essence full-time shamans and an increasingly elaborate religious infrastructure, centering on the temple.


The temple was in fact the center of the Sumerian city and state, and increasing levels of resources were lavished on construction and decoration. We might consider priests to be parasites and temples a waste of resources, but given the nature of Sumerian culture (and that of subsequent societies in the area, who inherit it), they are absolutely necessary for the survival of the state.  The mythic world view of Sumero-Babylonian culture understood that humans were created to serve the gods, and each city-state in fact belonged to a specific deity; the patron goddess of Uruk, for example, was Inanna (the Semitic Ishtar).  Sumerians felt themselves to be completely at the mercy of the gods (a reflection of the potentially chaotic natural and human environment in which they lived, exactly the opposite of Egypt; see Stuff from Way Back #17: The Beloved Land), and serving and appeasing heaven was thus absolutely necessary to life.



This is illustrated by the early political history of Sumer, which is unfortunately not all that clear. There are hints of some sort of assembly of notables very early on, which would be consistent with the state’s village origins, but the inevitable concentration of power afforded by the emergence of the city did not at first produce a secular kingship.  Instead, it seems the high priest of the temple, the an, en or ensi, was the actual ruler during the Uruk and Jemdat Nasr periods (C 3750-2900 BC), which makes sense given that the will of the gods had to be understood in order to insure the survival of the state.  This practice survived into Early Dynastic I (c. 2900-2750) – considered to be the real beginning of history – when the city-state of Kish appears to have held a loose hegemony over Sumer.  A secular leader, the lugal, was called up for the occasional war when the high priest was incapable of such leadership, and when the hegemony broke down in Early Dynastic II (c. 2750-2600 BC), leading to frequent wars, the lugal begins to emerge as an actual king.  The kingship is institutionalized as paramount and separate from the temple (though the king still carries out the will of the gods) during the times of increasing internal struggle and foreign invasion in Early Dynastic III (c. 2600-2334).


Civilization thus appears in southern Iraq in the later centuries of the fourth millennium BC, and history begins in Sumer with the invention of writing and the ability to keep permanent records. Fully matured civilization must, however, wait for the seventh century BC and the Greeks.  Missing from the mythic and autocratic states of the Fertile Crescent (and other parts of the world) are the essential elements of western civilization: rationalism, constitutionalism and humanism.  They simply did not exist prior to the Greeks of the first millennium BC.




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